Andrew Gilligan: Park Shenanigans (2)
March 18, 2009 by Andrew Gilligan
GREENWICH Council has just sent me a council tax bill for more than £1000. But after going to its councillors' latest Olympic-related public meeting, I've come to think that, for the entertainment value alone, they're worth every penny.
Last week's gathering, at Mycenae House, was an altogether smaller affair than the grand event at the Dome in December. As greenwich.co.uk reported at the time, the council resorted to some fairly neat body-swerves to avoid being unduly troubled on that occasion. People living within feet of the park were refused admission to the meeting on the grounds that they lived in Lewisham; organisations funded by the council were given tickets and encouraged to make "positive contributions;" other residents were told that the meeting was "full," even as the council continued to urge its own employees to attend.
Last week's event, however, run by the local Labour Party, was much less smooth. It took the form of Greenwich's cabinet member for culture and the Olympics, Councillor John Fahy, spinning what can only be described as a web of purest fantasy. Here is a selection, in his own words:
1. "The Olympics in the Park have universal support."
2. "The Olympic organisers have addressed the ecology issue, and that's well documented."
3. "Locog have dealt with the points being raised [by objectors] and it is a done deal."
4. "There will not be months of closures."
5. "There will be long-term benefits for Greenwich - watch this space."
Let us deal with these statements in order.
1. The Olympics in the park do not have universal support. The Friends of Greenwich Park oppose them. The Blackheath Society opposes them. The Olympic rider Zara Phillips opposes them. Large numbers of local people, judging by the membership lists and responses to the anti-equestrian event campaign, Nogoe, oppose them. (Fahy later amended his claim to say that the Greenwich Park plan has "majority support," but was unable to say how he knew that - since, to my knowledge, no surveys or polls have been done.)
2. The Olympic organisers have not addressed the ecology issue. They have certainly claimed, often, that the park will not be damaged - but as with Fahy's claim of public support, they seem to have no basis whatever for that claim. No detailed studies of any description have yet been done to show how the ecology of the park will, or will not, be affected by putting 23,000 spectators, a stadium, hundreds of buildings and a 4-mile cross-country course in it. The only truthful answer to the ecology question is that we do not know. That's precisely the problem.
3. Locog have not dealt with the points raised by objectors, of which the ecology and environment are of course the main ones. They have simply brushed them aside. To recap: no objector accuses Locog, or the council, of deliberately intending to damage the park. But we cannot be confident that damage will not be caused. Our confidence is further reduced precisely by the organisers' refusal to address any of the points we make.
4. As Locog's director of sport, Debbie Jevans, confirmed in an Evening Standard interview with me last year, most of the bottom half of Greenwich Park will be closed for "two to three months" in summer 2011 for the Olympic test event and for a further seven to eight months in 2012: a total of around ten months. "We anticipate starting major building works in March 2012 and will hand back the park about six weeks after the end of the Paralympics," she said. The Paralympics end on September 4 2012.
5. As London 2012 itself admits, "the facilities at Greenwich Park are temporary and nothing will remain after the Games." No legacy is planned and no-one at Greenwich Council can specify what such a legacy might be. As one objector quietly pointed out, "Greenwich Park is the legacy - a legacy of previous generations."
What the meeting showed me, again, was the utter absence of any serious argument for doing this. It is a policy based on, at best, head-in-the-sand denial - or, at worst, a set of straightforward lies. And when the objectors to the use of the Park at the meeting made their points, the quality of the responses made by the Olympics' defenders was even more dismally bad.
"This is a Labour Party meeting, and if you're fed up with it then leave," said one. "Fifty-three million people haven't signed your petition," snapped another. The anti-equestrian contingent was "handled" by some of the worst, most crudely partisan chairing I've seen in a while: step forward Marjorie Nzerem, vice-chair of the Greenwich Labour Party, who simply didn't want to hear from anyone not following the approved line.
Councillor Fahy's statement that the Greenwich Park Olympics are a "done deal" was, to some extent, echoed by his colleague, Alex Grant, chair of the council's planning board, which will soon have to consider London 2012's planning application. "While the council has a policy of supporting Greenwich hosting the Olympics, we will not be a rubber stamp," he told the meeting, adding that "we can attach conditions" to the planning permission. Asked whether there were any circumstances in which planning permission could actually be refused, Cllr Grant declined to answer. How "done" the deal actually is, the next few months will tell.